Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Political Apologies - A primer

(N.B. it's me, the PG)

Lots of people are commenting on the various apologies offered up by variously Rudd and Brown. (you can google your own—I'm lazy. And I'm not going to apologise for it)

The inestimable Mr Eugenides makes a very good fist of the arguments, but somehow I'm left feeling slightly unsatisfied:
Modern political apologies may often be pointless or self-interested, and this latest example would certainly appear to be both, however worthy the cause. But that doesn't mean that they are so by definition. The evil that men do lives after them, and there are times when we need to acknowledge that as a nation. In the absence of the possibility of apology from those responsible for the original "crime", I would say that the office of the Prime Minister is an appropriate vehicle through which to say, this was wrong, it should not have been done, and we are sorry.

That's true up until the last four words.

Given my solemn duty to educate and correct, I feel it is incumbent upon me to expand.
Here, therefore, is the Pedant-General's handy cut-out-and-keep guide for politicians wishing to apologise for something.

You simply cannot apologise—actually apologise—for something for which you were not responsible or accountable.
You just can't. I tend to think that political apologies are essentially attempts to grab cost-free boy points—it's a blatant attempt to look good—and are therefore almost always to be condemned.

An apology requires contrition and if there is no true contrition, then it's not an apology.
It may in fact make matters worse. If the apology appears insincere or simply for show, then it appears to be an attempt to weasel out. Not good.

Further, if you have—to take a purely hypothetical example—make a complete cock up of everything you've ever touched and brought a powerful nation to the very brink of bankruptcy and then steadfastly refuse to recognise your part in this disaster, then any apology you make on any other topic is going to be met with more than just a side-portion of scepticism. Remove the beam from thine own eye and all that. Especially if it's in your only good one.

On that note, if the "apology" intones anything along the lines of "I feel your pain", then it ALWAYS makes matters worse. Of course your political apologiser doesn't feel your pain. He may imagine that he does, but that's going to be a pale imitation of the real thing and it displays a risible lack of awareness to fail to appreciate this.

Besides, you end up thinking "Politician feeling pain? What a cracking idea!" and make a mental note to go and find your thumb-screws.

It's not real contrition unless there is a commitment to make good the error.
If someone has been treated manifestly unjustly and has suffered loss as a result, then an apology on its own is insufficient. It may in fact make matters worse—see above.

In order for a wrong to be put right, it has actually to be put right. Saying "Sorry" often appears to be cost-free in more than one way.

P-G Rule of thumb:
Political apologies should be regarded by default as shameless attempts to look good and should be treated as devious and/or immoral unless there is OVERWHELMING evidence to the contrary and such evidence needs to be in form of ACTIONS not words.

So what are you—assuming you are a Prime Minister—to do?

Well, you can recognise that something done by predecessors was wrong/immoral, spell out precisely why, recognise that you understand this and to make a commitment that you will
  1. correct any harm to individuals as result of your predecessors actions

  2. ensure that we are all able to remember that this bad thing happened and why it is a bad thing—and probably also why it occurred—in order that we do not make the same or similar mistakes in the future

  3. use the good offices of your position to root out similar instances of injustice wherever they may be occurring outside your juridiction in whatever manner that may be possible.

You don't need to have a cry with the victims, but you do need to show grit, determination and an understanding of what happened and why. None of this requires the utterance of the word "sorry" and any such statement will be all the more powerful for its absence.

Just one thing though: there's a quid pro quo. All of the above refers to individuals and, implicitly, living individuals. So if you're thinking of extorting an apology from someone, here is a handy guide for you too. Never let it be said that your free-to-air Pedant-General is not comprehensive in coverage.

Groups have no rights, only individuals.
So don't go claiming that I need to stump up my hard earned cash just because someone a bit like you was hard done by.

Nail the people or organisations responsible
In that order: only go for the organisation if the relevant people are no longer around.

Further, just as it's generally distasteful for someone to apologise for something for which they were not responsible, it's a bit off to go around trying to extort concessions from people (or organisations) who weren't responsible.

Claims are timebound
Those bastard Normans stole my great-great-great-great..........grandparents' sheep. Aye right.

We can argue about where the time limit may lie, but that such a limit exists is not up for debate. I would argue (and I'm sure that I will be comprehensively eviscerated in the comments—for which I will need apologies for my hurt feelings, mark you) that the limit may be different in different cases:
  • Actually expropriated physical property still exists and can be claimed for. You've got a good case, maybe for several generations.

  • Physical harm really relates only to individuals so the claim passes to the other side with them, and possibly before that point.

  • Hurt feelings: you can f*ck off now.

Enough already
In two forms.

Firstly and generally, shit happens. Get over it.

Secondly but more specifically, if shit has happened, but those responsible (or their heirs and successors) have already made extensive efforts to clear it up and there are considerable safeguards against it happening again, then you're not seeking an apology or restitution: you're seeking rent.

There. That's cleared the air.


John B said...

You simply cannot apologise—actually apologise—for something for which you were not responsible or accountable.

This works when an individual is making the apology. It would be absurd for Mr Gordon Brown to apologise for the actions taken by someone he'd never met 40 years ago.

However, the UK Prime Minister *was* responsible for the suffering inflicted on the kids who were sent to Australia - and the apology is made in the name of the UK Prime Minister (not in the name of Mr Gordon Brown).

Similarly, it would be entirely appropriate for the board and shareholders of a company to apologise to people injured by the company's unsafe practices - even if none of the individuals who were board members or shareholders at the time of the poisoning were still involved with the company.

The Pedant-General said...

John B,

"and the apology is made in the name of the UK Prime Minister (not in the name of Mr Gordon Brown)."

I understand that entirely as, I would have thought, the rest of the post makes clear.

My point is that apologies are and have to be personal. Restitution is not. The PM can recognise injustice and can organise restitution, but he cannot apologise because he is not *personally* responsible.

He cannot declare mea culpa. Any hint of that, and you know you are dealing with a charlattan.

John B said...

I see your point but respectfully disagree when long-lasting institutions are involved - I reckon that an apology from the Catholic Church or AEG [*] re more-or-less-everything or WWII slave labour respectively isn't meaningless.

[*] unless AEG was dissolved postwar and replaced with a new company which bought the name and assets, in which case it would be.

The Pedant-General said...

I think that we've sorted this out. Here's the summary.

Although genuine remorse is a personal thing...

John B:
... institutions have to be able to show remorse for things those institutions did under previous leaders.

Necessarily, it will be the figurehead of an institution that delivers the message of remorse, contrition and restitution and it is right that that figurehead should do so where this is needed.

The content of the message and manner in which the current figurehead of an institution shows remorse on behalf of the organisation is the key here.

If the "apology" from an institution is merely saying "sorry" without any attempt at restitution, then you've got exploitative uncaring bastards trying to weasel out of claims against them, but...

John B:
... if it's just cash without the recognition that appalling things were done in the name of that institution (i.e. something that looks like an "apology") then you've got exploitative uncaring bastards generally.

DK: I believe that we have arrived at a sensible agreed position. Is this a first?

And can we send this to Baroness whats-her-face with her PCC nonsense as an example of the kind of stuff that the MSM can't even begin to do?

Mrs Proudie of Barchester said...

Excellent article Pedant-General. Totally agree with the points you have made. Keep up the good work!

DiscoveredJoys said...

I too think it is daft to make an empty apology.

It may be more appropriate to acknowledge formally that something wrong was done. At least that would signify that the regrettable incident/policy/war/human rights abuse was a) wrong and b) over.

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